The Case of Jephthah and his Daughter

We have been going through the Judges of Israel in the Sunday bulletin, and we have come to the curious situation of Jephthah. Jephthah is a favorite among many to speculate about, especially about what happened to his daughter. So as we look into this matter, we will stick to the information given in the scriptures, and with this alone, I believe we will have sufficient knowledge to properly understand what happened to Jephthah’s daughter.

Now, Jephthah did not have the best start in life, as we can read in Judges chapter 11. He was the son of a prostitute, born to a man with legitimate sons who drove him out of the house as they grew older. Jephthah found a new family when he appears to become a leader of a street gang.

While Jephthah continues to grow into a mighty man running with his reckless band, war breaks out between Ammon and Israel. The elders of Gilead looked to the mighty Jephthah and petitioned him to be their commander and to fight against Ammon. Jephthah agrees to fight for them on the condition that he is made the head over all of Gilead; the elders agreed to these terms.

As you can continue to read in the account, in Judges 11:14-28, Jephthah tries to reason with Ammon for peace, but they do not relent. So the next thing we read about may or may not surprise us: “Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah” (v.29). From this point on, we see that Jephthah is now under the influence of the Spirit of God; the Lord is with him in this conflict wherever he goes.

As Jephthah advances closer toward the people of Ammon, he makes a vow to God, saying “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” After he makes this vow, he advances to fight against Ammon and there was a “very great slaughter” and Israel is victorious.

When Jephthah comes back home after the war, he approaches his house, and coming out of his house is his only child, a daughter, greeting him with celebration, with a tambourine in hand and dancing around for joy of her father’s victory and safety. With great sorrow, Jephthah tells his daughter of his vow to the Lord, and his daughter replies that he must keep his vow. It is at this point that many people believe that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord. I believe that that is very presumptuous to draw such a conclusion, especially in light of the whole context which gives us many clues as to what really happened.


What Happened to Jephthah’s Daughter?

First, I think it is important to note some of the spiritual facts of this situation.

  1. The Spirit of the Lord had come upon Jephthah when he gave his vow to God.
  2. Hebrews 11:32-34 speaks of the faith that Jephthah had in God when he subdued the kingdom of Ammon.
  3. Verses 14-28 demonstrate the knowledge of God that Jephthah had even before the Spirit came upon him. He knew God, and may it be inferred that he also knew of the law of God.


I make that third point to show that Jephthah probably knew it was wrong to sacrifice a human being. The law was clear that a man should not make his daughter pass through the fire (Deuteronomy 18:9-12). Exodus 13:12-13 explains the redemption law for things that could not be offered to the Lord. As we know that only certain animals that God commanded were to be offered to him, but what of the other animals? They still must be offered, but since it was unscriptural to do so, a scriptural animal would redeem the unscriptural animal by being sacrificed instead. The firstborn of humans is also included in verse 13, but instead of a redeeming animal, the price of 100 gerahs would be given as the price of redemption. So then, it is evident from the law that human sacrifices were never allowed, and even though the firstborn of man was to be offered to be the Lords, according to law, they would not actually be sacrificed, a sacrifice of money was given instead. This may be something like what Jephthah did to redeem his daughter whom he promised unto the Lord, but I believe Jephthah did something even more, as we will see.

We read at the end of Judges 11, that Jephthah’s daughter is given 2 months to bewail her virginity in the mountains. When she returns, Jephthah does according to his vow. The very next statement is this “and she knew no man” (v.39). There may be a few logical reasons for such a statement, but in light of the context and the harmony of the laws of God, I believe this refers to how Jephthah offered his daughter to the Lord, not as a literal burnt offering, but an offering of her to the Lord’s service, she knew no man. This is certainly one of the ways to accurately render the original Hebrew word for “burnt offering.” Most of the time “olah” is used for the burnt offering of animals, but when it is used elsewhere, not talking about animals, it does not carry that meaning. Such as in Ezekiel 40:26, when the same Hebrew word is used for the idea of “to go up.” Because the word literally means “ascent, stairway, steps.” So the idea is of holding up something to give to God, offering up by hand. This does not necessitate the burning a person in fire in order to fulfill Jephthah’s vow of “olah,” that is, giving his daughter to the Lord. This is in perfect harmony with the context’s continual mention of her keeping her virginity. She was not offered up as a burnt offering, such would be an abomination to God, and inconsistent with a man who made such a vow while being filled with the Spirit of the Lord and walking by faith (which comes by hearing God’s word). She was, however, offered to the Lord in a similar way that Hannah offered Samuel to the Lord (1 Samuel chapters 1-3).

The account is completed with the daughters of Israel making a yearly tradition of going to the mountain for four days to honor the daughter of Jephthah. The KJV, NKJV, and ESV all use the term “lament,” revealing the idea that the translators must have thought she was burnt as a sacrifice. But the translators made an error, for the original word does not carry the thought of lamenting, but to recount, rehearse, tell again, to attribute honor, ascribe praise, to celebrate and commemorate. That all sounds like a good thing, not a sorrowful thing! Other translations (NASB, CSB, ASV, ERV, NIV, YLT) have carried a more proper view of what the daughters of Israel did each year. They celebrated the fulfillment of the vow, as this woman dedicated herself not to be with a man and have a family but to solely be in the service of God.

Article by Tanner Campbell